I have one request for all of you.  Please, rudely interrupt any clear-thinking adult that starts to talk about ‘parity’ or ‘competitive balance’ in Major League Baseball.  It’s fiction.  It’s like trying to talk seriously about Santa Claus or the tooth fairy or bipartisan political compromise. It just doesn’t exist.

Major League Baseball has created a mythology around this parity thing.  Bud Selig (and others) selectively broadcast ‘facts’ and figures that support the notion that anyone can get into the playoffs.  And, you know, once you’re in, who knows what’ll happen?!

Well, I know what will happen.  The rich teams will get into the playoffs and then have a huge talent advantage over everyone else.

How then, does one explain the fact that smaller market teams win championships from time to time?  Once a team gets into the playoffs (<- and that’s the important part), the specific series outcomes probably have more to do with the nature of the game of baseball than any signing or drafting rules Bud & Co. can take credit for or, more likely, ignore.

Let’s look at some payroll details of the teams that made it to the dance this year.  (Beginning-of-season payroll numbers used.)  The ten teams that clinched a playoff birth span the market distribution pretty evenly.  Three teams made it in from the top ten (Dodgers, Red Sox, and Tigers – avg payroll of $175M); three teams made it from the 10-19 tier (Cardinals, Reds, and Braves – avg payroll of $105M); and much to the delight of big market teams and their suck-ups, four teams made it from the bottom tier (Indians, A’s, Pirates, and Rays – avg payroll of $69M). Don’t ignore the relative distances between the tiers.  The top tier is far, far above the rest of the league.

Another way to parse this out is to look at the distribution of salaries and number of highly paid players.  In other words: How many players did each team just dump excess cash onto to secure – MVP/CYA caliber free agents? And, how much of a line-up/rotation can a team fill with moderately highly paid players – All Star caliber free agents?   For the sake of simplicity, I’ve chosen the arbitrary cut-offs of $20M and $10M, respectively.  (And I didn’t bother to look at the one-and-done Reds and Indians.  Sorry, Ohio…)

  • The Dodgers have three (3) $20M players; and five (5) additional players that make more than $10M. A total of $123M was paid to 7 of those players alone this year plus a portion of Ricky Nolasco’s $11M salary;
  • Red Sox, zero (0) and seven (7). $79M on six of those players plus a portion of Jake Peavy’s $16M salary;
  • Detroit, three (3) and two (2).  $89M on those five players;
  • Cardinals, zero (0) and four (4).  $55M on those four players;
  • Braves, zero (0) and three (3).  $38M on those three players;
  • A’s, zero (0) and zero (0);
  • Pirates, zero (0) and three (3); THREE?!  Yep – split portions of AJ Burnett’s $16M and Wandy’s $13M salaries, plus a small bit of Morneau’s $15M salary;
  • Rays, zero (0) and zero (0).

There it is.  The top three teams pay more to their elite free agents than the bottom three teams spend on their entire teams. The Dodgers and Red Sox and Tigers essentially start with a team like the A’s, Pirates, or Rays…. and then add 5-8 of the very best players in Major League Baseball.  I know, you’ve heard it before…

There are, however, two outliers in the 2013 playoff payroll analysis.  Those two teams are the Red Sox and Pirates.  And these two approaches are what may prove to make these two teams perennial powerhouses in their respective tax brackets.

The Red Sox have a huge payroll.  Since John Henry took charge (and even before, with the Manny and Pedro additions of the Duquette years), the Red Sox have been one of the very biggest spenders in baseball.  But when Theo Epstein and/or his spending model has been employed, the Red Sox have never gone out and paid for the best of the best.  They typically target the better of the best, and/or the best of the good.  And that is reflected in their payroll – no $20M plus players; seven $10M players.  These seven players aren’t guys like Verlander or A-Rod (of yore).  These are a combination of players from the Sox’ system that have taken the hometown discount and second-tier free agents.  No one of these players could carry a team. Ryan Dempster?  Shane Victonino?  Are you kidding me?  But in concert, this is a huge chunk of the 25-man roster filled with proven, virtually guaranteed, production.

And here’s the genius of it.  Just as no one player from that list could carry that team; no one injury could sink it either.  And there’s no one player with too, too much financial commitment to hamstring that team at the deadline or in the off-season.  The Dodgers and Tigers cannot say that.  Essentially, they are simply luckier than the other bloated teams (read: Yankees and Angels) in terms of performance and injury.  The Red Sox have more of an insurance policy structured into their roster.

Now by contrast, the Pirates’ largest free-agent paycheck this year added up to $7.5M.  That was for Russell Martin.  Money well spent.  But if you add in the assumed value of the high-salary players like AJ Burnett and Justin Morneau, the Pirates have a virtual payroll that exceeds $100M.  The talent represented not by the fractions that the Pirates are paying, but accounting the full-freight that some other team mistakenly dumped on these players to make them unavailable to the Pirates (and others) in the first place, pushes the Pirates roster to something comparable to the Cardinals.

And that certainly played on the field.  The Pirates took a top-of-the-middle-tier team the full distance in the NLDS.  Could they (should they?) have won it?  Easily.

Neal Huntington’s approach this year seemed to be this: Put together a team in April that (with a few breaks) can compete.  And then, open up all the stops to get high-profile players (regardless of salary) to play for the September push and beyond.  Add to that approach the tried-and-true salary dump deals with the rich and strong draft-and-develop results, and the Pirates should be in the thick of things for years to come.

Does that mean there’s parity or competitive balance in Major League Baseball now? No. Don’t be stupid.  It just means the Pirates have an intelligent and creative front office.

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